What Makes Me A Hindu?

This question is the very core of this blog.

There are plenty of hippy Americans who practice “alternative spirituality” and use labels like that and others. Why do I think that I’m not just “a spiritual person” but actually a Hindu?

What makes someone a Hindu?

There is actually very little agreement on that question. I’m not even worried right now about what makes someone a good Hindu!

I asked this question on my Facebook page once and I got a wide variety of answers.

  • Someone who follows the Vedas
  • Every living being is already a Hindu (they just don’t necessarily know it)
  • If you say you are a Hindu, you are
  • If your parents are Hindus, you are

The thing is, there is no authority in Hinduism to dictate who belongs and who doesn’t. There is no pope. There is no Bible. Many people have made the argument that Hinduism isn’t a religion at all, it’s a way of life. By that they mean that Hindu is just something that you are and it exists in every aspect of your being. You don’t have to examine how or why you are, you just are.

I like Dr. Frank Morales’s answer at About.com: “The two primary factors that distinguish the individual uniqueness of the great world religious traditions are a) the scriptural authority upon which the tradition is based, and b) the fundamental religious tenet(s) that it espouses.”

 All we need to do then is figure out what are the fundamental tenets of Hinduism and then we can measure ourselves against them and see if those beliefs are our beliefs.

Dr. Morales goes on to tell us that if we strive to live dharmically*, then we are Hindus. He is the “Someone who follows the Vedas” camp. But then there are a lot of people who identify as Hindu who don’t try to live in a dharmic way. There’s greed, cruelty, selfishness, etc. in plenty of people who see themselves as Hindus, who grew up in India with Hindu parents, who give offerings to Gods at their altar and visit temples when they want to ask the Gods for something. The label “Hindu” is a very wide umbrella.

And that’s true of any religion in the world. Different people have different understandings about what they mean. Some people label themselves as that religion because they have studied it, others because it’s all they’ve ever done.

I don’t think I can create a metric to measure the Hindu-ness of every person. What I can do is look at why I see myself as a Hindu and not something else.

As I said in my introduction, I grew up in an organization whose principals were based on Hindu philosophy. I never called it Hinduism, though. My parents don’t see themselves as Hindus (even though they totally are!) What I found was that in college I explored different religions trying to figure out where I belonged and I had the amazing experience of discovering that I was already a Hindu and I always had been. All my beliefs, every single one of them, was a part of Hindu philosophy.

So what are those beliefs? As Subhamoy Das says, also at About.com, there is no “one Hinduism” and it lacks any unified system, since it is a conglomerate of diverse beliefs and traditions, but there are prominent themes:

  • Dharma (ethics and duties)
  • Samsara (rebirth)
  • Karma (right action)
  • Moksha (liberation from the cycle of Samsara)

The things that made me recognize Hinduism in my own life were:

  • a belief in reincarnation
  • a belief that everything in the world opperates in cycles and nothing is ever created or destroyed. There is no death without renewal
  • a belief in divinity within myself
  • a belief that our experience of the world is not the ultimate reality
  • a belief in a perfectly just world that keeps its own balance by a system of action and consequence
  • a belief that we can break the cycle of life and death to become one with the ultimate God

Yes, I could just say I am a hippy. A new ageist. But why divorce those beliefs from their origin in Indian thought? I could create a new word for it, but no matter what I say, those beliefs are deeply ingrained within Hinduism already.

In the end, I’m not sure how much the words themselves matter here. I’ve certainly heard plenty of times that the word “Hindu” is just something the British used to call people in the Indus river valley. I don’t really care. It’s the word that calls to people’s minds what I am and so it is the word I use. For a while I tried telling people I was an Advaita Vedantist when they asked what religion I was. That’s the word for my particular branch. But saying that just required a long explanation, the long and short of which was that I was Hindu.

In Islam and certain branches of evangelical Christianity there is a statement of belief that you say out loud and from that moment on, you are that religion. Well, for me, I am a Hindu because I say I am.

What do you think? What makes someone a Hindu?

*Dharma= justice, balance, correct action

Related Posts:

Cultural Appropriation And Me

Why Am I Called The “White” Hindu?

Where Does a White Hindu Start?

Did I Start Out Christian?

Why I Am A Hindu

Hinduism Doesn’t Need Me


My Mahashivaratri Prayer!
Can Westerners Gain Enlightenment?
When You Find Your True Path
How Do You Curb Desire?
About Ambaa

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • http://www.prophet666.com/ Neel N

    Like the Hindu religion with its diversity you can arrive at more than one conclusions why you are a Hindu and none will be relatively wrong.

    • Ambaa

      I think you’re absolutely right. There are many ways that one can be a Hindu


    What can I say. Nothing. :) :) :)


    PS You live , breath, see, hear, and do more then what I do when it comes to hinduism. At this point you are more hindu then me. :)

    • Ambaa

      lol Let’s not make comparisons!

  • krishna


    How do you see the difference between upanishads saying all are one and what is really practiced in hinduism — the castes which says no one is equal and people of some lower castes cannot even look at people of higher castes? If you are a hindu what caste are you?

    If u are hurt by my comment i apologize.

    • Ambaa

      I will have a post at some point about caste. I really think that caste is a mistake. From the original sources in the Gita and the Upanishads it seems as though the concept of caste was more about the role each person played as an individual, not something that he was trapped into by his birth. The system has become far too rigid.

      Not having a caste is one of the issues that comes with being a convert to Hinduism. So no, I have no caste. To some that would make me the lowest caste, I suppose. If I were to marry a Hindu, I guess I would take his caste on.

      I absolutely believe that all people are equal. All are God. It distresses me very much when I don’t see that practiced.

    • HARRY

      @ Krishna

      Caste in India is like class in Europe. It existed before any religious litrature existed. When men first walked out of jungle and in to an open about 50k + years ago, The first thing he did was to organise a gang (group) so that he can force the weak to do his work and that’s how the birth of the first caste and class system started. When men learned new skills and created litrature the caste and class was allready establised and part of society and finally religious litrature came along and it didn’t wanted to change structure of the society so it kind of accepted the existing rule of the thumb.

      If you read Bhagvad Gita it says clearly, we are all born SUDRA and only by our deed and karma we earn that privilege of becoming Hindu and when you recognise brum (god) you become bramin. Therefore this are the stages the soul goes through. This proves that the caste system existed before Bhagvad Gita and if you read upnishad and vedas it says the same things, that every men is born equal, but you and I know that is not true even in USA or Europe because of class system. By this we can tell that it wasn’t the religion that created the caste system. Therefore we can say that It was men made and existed before religion or religious litrature came along.

      When you read vedanta it tells you that all human race is equal. By the time these books existed this was allready part of our culture and also became intertwined in the religion but do not ever make a mistake in by saying it’s part of religion because it’s not, that’s why these books kind of contradict due to this. Only when you read certain litrature this part is understood. I have only known this from philosophy lectures delivered by vaisnava gurus. Does this answer you question?

      When something is existing for 50 thousand years why change it, that is the attitude of our society and because it’s kind of intertwined with religion. But if you read any of our religious books it tell you every men is same in eyes of god. So my question is now that you know, what will you do? will you force others to change or leave it as it is, when it’s intertwined in our religion and society. My question is how do separate sugar from milk when it’s dissolved inside and part of it?


      PS Ignore all the mistakes and typos. I only had few minutes to write this.

      • Ambaa

        I figure that I will behave in the way that feels authentic to me and leave others to figure out their own karma. Does that make sense? I will treat everyone as a representative of God because I believe that is the truth. But I don’t like to work on getting other people to believe what I believe. I guess I’m very sensitive to others trying to change my beliefs, so I don’t try to change theirs.

        But then I’m torn too because I hate to see the suffering of fellow human beings when they are treated as lesser than someone else.

        It’s a sticky conundrum!

        You make very good points, Harry. People do seem to have this drive, this need, to categorize each other and form a hierarchy. I don’t know where that comes from, but it might not be possible to eliminate it as it seems ingrained in the human race.

  • krishna

    If you have time can you please go through the book (an online book) and can you share what do you think about this book. This book is by Dr. Ambedkar , the father of indian constituition and he was a Dalit (the lowest in the caste hierarchy)


    • Ambaa

      I will take a look when I get a chance. Thank you!

    • Sandeep

      Caste system is Not a concept of HInduism ..It came in to practice during colonical rule…even our ancient scriptures there is No mention of surnames with person. first name.We have Varnas..and Varnas are Not by Birth but by deeds…As per Varnas..every one is born as Shudra (Not knowledgable ) with the change of role in society the your varnas change..There are many examples where Varnas got changes as with the change in Role.. for. e.g Valmiki born to shudra parents become Maharishi due to his intellectual ability ..Ravan born to bhrahmin family become dasyu by his deeds..There are many examples.Please read this link for great details http://agniveer.com/caste-system/

      One more thing Caste is Not mandatory for a Hindu ..There are many sections of Hindus who don’t have any caste like AryaSamaj ,Bharhmo Samaj etc.. Now in India youth is much aware about the corrupted caste system.. & it is loosing its grip…

      • HARRY

        @ Sandeep

        Brilliant article, thanks for that link, but isn’t it same in what I’m saying or simillar. I know that I didn’t give indepth explaination about Jatti and Varna. One thing I can say is I’m not the only one reading old books. :)


        PS Thanks for that. :)

  • Sandeep

    Namaste Amba..
    Thanks for posting such a beautiful post…

    Well as you have already mentioned above as there is No Pope in Hinduism..etc..you are bound to get different answers…I feel what make me Hindu is ..my adherence to Dharma…and I try to connect with divinity in myself…
    Hinduism or Sanatan Dharma is an ever evolving Religion that is the reason why we have a canon of Spritual books…however Vedas r considered as the Highest Authority..

    • Ambaa

      Good point! I really like how we can evolve and not be stuck with a 2,000 year old book that doesn’t make any sense! lol

      • Ambaa

        Not that I don’t value old books! lol. I meant here the people who follow the Bible to the letter without question. I like to study the old books, learn from them, but also keep my wits about me and not follow things unless I can understand in some way.

  • Sandeep

    Yes ever evolving is the unique characteristics of Hinduism this is the reason why it is still here ..after many thousand years..

  • http://www.amiahindu.com Am I A Hindu?

    Excellent blog Amba ……My Pranams to you. …..People like are indeed the salt of this earth.

    Who is a Hindu?

    Since Hinduism is NOT a religion but a way of life and it is man’s eternal search after TRUTH,

    any one [irrespective whether they call themselves a Hindu or not ] WHO SINCERELY SEARCHES AFTER TRUTH is a Hindu.

    The very first book of Hindus named Rig Veda proclaim,

    “Ekam Sat, Viprah Bahudha Vadanti”. (There is only one truth, only men describe it in different ways).

    Rig Veda also stated

    “A no bhadrAH kratavo yantu vishvataH | (Rg Veda I-89-1) ……..LET NOBLE THOUGHTS COME TO US FROM EVETY SIDE.

    Which means TRUTH should be accepted irrespective from where it comes from.

    So a Jew or a Christian or a Moslem or whom so ever who is searching after TRUTH is automatically a Hindu.

    • Ambaa

      I would find it obnoxious to say that a Jew or Christian, etc. who is searching for truth is really a Hindu, but that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking it! :D

  • indian

    following may sound out of fashion or entirely wrong & meaningless
    but only
    hinduism taught to me when i was young & which i remember was
    respect ur mother1st then 2nd comes father then the guru comes third affter that comes the place of god. orders of mom dad & guru should have same respect as of god
    respect & love towards mother father & guru should be like respect & love towards god
    matru devo bhava
    pitra devo bhava
    gurur devo bhava
    following this would defintely never make god angry on u & definitely guide u towards path of moksha.
    of course i never followed this as my ego was growing everyday

  • Kaushiki

    As I commented on Facebook, becoming a Hindu is a process, for those of us who were not born to that path. There is a recognition, something that draws you into the Path. For me, the recognition has always been an attraction to the Gods and Goddesses, a hunger for ultimate answers and a feeling of harmony between all paths (the last two having been with me all my life). I am continually inspired by the great teachers, the extreme antiquity of this path and the rituals. Jai Maa!

    • Ambaa

      Well said!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mjfisher2005#!/mjfisher2005 Kaushiki

    It’s all the fault of Time Life, colourful posters of Hindu Gods and Goddesses that started arriving in the US in the ’60′s and the Vedanta Society! Time Life came out with a huge picture book of religions of the world. It was all interesting, but I made a beeline to the Hindu section with a fold out of all (I’m kidding) the Hindu Gods and Goddesses in simple artwork I could comprehend. The posters appeared in Pier One and I was enchanted with the bright colours, the action, the beauty and their vibrant nature. The Vedanta Society, darn them, published books that introduced me to Hindu philosophy and made it easy for me to absorb all the concepts, goals and ideals of Hinduism. It took me a long time to accept that what I was was a Hindu. There were signposts everywhere that said, “no, no, you can’t be, you weren’t born there.” But it was too late, the love affair was on and I couldn’t stop. I even took time to practice neo paganism and witchcraft in order to find a more comfortable way to be spiritual. It didn’t work. Hindusim is too much a part of my nature. Whether anybody agrees me with or not, whether I find others I can practice my spirituality with or not, I am still Hindu at heart. I practice the rituals, I do the meditations, I fit it in with my life, it becomes my life! Namaste!

  • Pratheesh

    Dear sister,
    I am a Hindu because it gives me the liberty to critically analyze my beliefs and accept what i need and comfortable with.
    Even it gives me the freedom to ask questions to my Guru about the teachings till i get satisfied.

    • Ambaa

      I love that too. Being able and encouraged to ask questions is so important to me!

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  • Arjun

    @Krishna, Ive read that book by Dr. Ambedkar and its full of mistakes and also reflects his colonial education and in trying to prove Hinduism is somehow about castes (which seems to be your intention) you contradict yourself out because if Hindus have some sort of caste apartheid set up then why would let a ‘dalit’ like Dr Dr. Ambedkar create the constitution of India in the first place ? Social structures of society have always been present not only in india but around the world.Pre industrial europe was still in feudal ranking system similar to ‘caste’ but changed to class during post industrial europe.Which shows the impact of economics in blurring caste/clan divisions.So to make a blatantly a Hindu thing is a weak argument because the Hindu civilization also will reflect its social structures but just like Hindu spirituality everything will evolve and reform. Of course there is discrimination but what people forget it not only happens on dalits but also against Brahmins and other castes.Most caste conflicts are usually by one so called ‘backward caste’ against another backward caste so its more complicated than what people think especially when its more politically based than religion.